Julian Eltinge began his career as a female impersonator in boyhood, and made a living at it for a long time. His act appealed primarily to women, who were impressed by the fashionable frocks and gowns that Eltinge wore onstage and the grace and beauty of his female impersonations. (Some women asked him for his beauty secrets!) Eltinge was famously disliked by male audiences. WC Fields once noted that, when Eltinge came onstage, the men went to the smoking lounge.
Eltinge occasionally played biological females, but more often (as in 'The Countess Charming') he played a man who (for some contrived reason) masquerades as a woman. To avoid the spectre of transvestism, Eltinge's scripts usually contained some dialogue and stage business to establish that he was portraying a man who only *reluctantly* impersonated a woman, and who couldn't wait to get back into trousers. By all accounts, Eltinge was not effeminate in his life offstage, but there was frequent speculation about his sexuality. Eltinge (who lived with his mother) was often seen engaging in 'manly' activities, such as smoking cigars in saloons. There are several reported incidents of Eltinge beating up men who questioned his virility, but -- since none of these incidents ever resulted in assault charges -- they may well have been staged for publicity's sake.
The most interesting thing about 'The Countess Charming' is the script credit. This movie was written by Gelett Burgess and Carolyn Wells, two extremely popular humour authors of the time. Wells wrote tongue-twisting limericks, such as the one about the tutor who tooted a flute. Burgess invented the word 'blurb' and wrote the famous poem that begins 'I never saw a purple cow'. Too bad those poems aren't in this movie.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Eltinge plays Stanley Jordan, a wealthy bachelor (hmm...) who is active in society until he insults Jacob Vandergraft, who is highly respected for his prominent work on behalf of many worthy charities. As a result of this, Jordan is no longer welcome at any swank parties. To get revenge, Jordan takes the logical gambit of disguising himself as a woman. (Chaplin had already used this idea in 'The Masquerader'.) As Countess Raffelski, freshly arrived from Europe, Jordan easily infiltrates posh society and charms Vandergraft, whose name should tip you off that he's a crook. The counterfeit countess exposes grifter Vandergraft, and all ends happily for Jordan and his alleged girlfriend Betty.
In the close shots, Eltinge does indeed look amazingly convincing as a woman, but he's not an especially pretty one. At this point in his life, Eltinge 'en femme' looks like a slightly more fetching edition of Margaret Dumont. Eltinge's neck is short and thick but shows no adam's-apple, and he refrains from giving his female disguise an exaggerated bustline. He wears a wig that looks like a bad Afro. His gait and posture, as a society 'lady', are convincing. As this is a silent film, we must take it on faith that Eltinge's voice is convincingly female. Reportedly, at the peak of his stage career, Eltinge was very credible as attractive young women ... but this movie was made several corset-sizes later.
Eltinge's playboy character in this film is assisted in and out of his male clothing by a Japanese manservant named Soto. But once Eltinge decides to frock himself, in female disguise, he contends with a maidservant (in a long skirt) who is likewise Japanese, and she looks remarkably like Soto in drag. Is Eltinge revealing a genuine predilection here? During Julian Eltinge's long stage career, he had a (male) Japanese dresser who assisted him with his elaborate costume changes. 'The Countess Charming' (why couldn't they have called it 'The Charming Countess'?) isn't especially funny, and Eltinge's much-vaunted female beauty seems to have faded by this time. But he was a major stage personality in his day, so I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.
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